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COA rules on landowner first-impression issue

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For the first time, the Indiana Court of Appeals needed to decide whether an urban or residential landowner owes a duty to protect neighbors from damage caused by a tree falling from the landowner's property.

In J. John Marshall and Marjorie Marshall v. Erie Insurance Exchange a/s/o Cindy Cain, No. 20A03-0908-CV-366, Cindy Cain's home is next to a vacant lot owned by Marjorie Marshall, which John helped to manage. Elkhart code enforcement told them that a tree on the lot needed to come down, so John had a professional arborist inspect the tree. The arborist just visually inspected the tree and determined it didn't need to be taken down. The tree later fell onto Cain's house. Her insurer, Erie, reimbursed her for the repairs and brought a suit against the Marshalls for damages for negligent maintenance of the tree. Marjorie died before the bench trial concluded.

The trial court entered judgment in favor of Erie; John filed a motion to correct error, which the trial court denied.

John argued there was insufficient service of process upon Marjorie. Even though someone else signed the return receipt indicating the notice was received, the service by mail was effective, ruled the appellate court.

John also claimed the trial court erred in finding they owed a duty of care to Cain. Judge Margret Robb wrote it would appear the Restatement (Second) of Torts section 363 forecloses the issue of whether the Marshalls owed any duty to protect Cain from the fallen tree. But that would leave urban or residential landowners essentially powerless in the face of a neighbor who refused to remove or secure a dangerous tree just because it was a natural condition of the land. Like several other states, the appellate court adopted a reasoning that departed from the strict application of the rule in context of urban or residential property.

Living in close quarters substantially increases the risk that a falling tree will cause damage or injure someone, and similar to the problem relating to a highway - as mentioned in the Restatement rule - the reduced size of property lots in an urban or residential setting make the burden of time and money to inspect and secure trees relatively minor especially as compared to the potential damage that could result from the tree's fall, she wrote.

The appellate judges held that an urban or residential landowner has the duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to neighboring landowners arising from the conditions of trees on his or her property.

The trial court properly applied a duty of reasonable care to the Marshalls, and properly found that sufficient evidence supported the Marshalls breached that duty and that John was jointly and severally liable since he acted as Marjorie's agent in care of the lot.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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